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NAPA Report

Title Page



Executive Summary

Enhancing Local Firefighting Capacity

Panel Conclusions and Recommendations



NASF Report

Executive Summary


An Overview of Rural and Volunteer Fire Departments

Issues and Recommended Actions



Appendices Case Studies





The Panel’s 2003 wildfire studies were nearing completion when the massive Southern California wildfires of 2003 broke out. The severity of these fires and their strong relationship to the central recommendations of this year’s study compelled the Panel to comment on their implications.

These fires began with three powerful, wind-driven wildfires on October 24th. The most noted one at that time was in the foothills of the San Bernardino National Forest 50 miles east of Los Angeles. It required evacuation of several thousand people. Over the next eleven days, nine serious wildfires ranged over an area of Southern California in six counties stretching 180 miles from the Mexican border to north of Los Angeles; 22 people died, well over 3,500 structures were lost, and 800,000 acres burned. Governor Gray Davis declared these fires to be the most devastating in the state’s history. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated. The Cedar Fire in San Diego was the largest of the individual fires and also the largest in the state’s history. According to CNN, Governor Davis announced, “At the peak of the wildfires, there were more than 15,600 firefighters battling the flames, along with 1,900 fire engines, 203 water trucks, 43 air tankers and 105 helicopters.”

By the time the fires were contained on November 4th, 24,000 people were without electricity. Restoring service was expected to take several weeks, and officials worried that the next rain would bring serious flooding and mudslides. Following fire of this magnitude and intensity, damage from mudslides could easily reach millions of dollars.

Interestingly, the Panel’s previous study had ended on a similar note. As it was being finalized, the 2002 fire season had become one of the largest in history, with several states experiencing their largest fires on record. And the Panel felt compelled to add an Epilogue. In part, the Panel noted then:

These fires strongly reinforce the concern that drought, excessive fuel hazards, and human movement into the wildlands continue to threaten the nation’s communities, forests and fields, driving costs even higher. The 2002 fire season is more than a wake-up call. It is a painful reminder of the magnitude of the problem and the dire need for action.

The 2003 fire season reinforces this point. In addition, the anecdotal reports coming from the Southern California fires focus attention on two of the issues the Academy Panel is studying this year—organizing to make best use of local firefighting forces, and reducing or mitigating wildfire hazards before fires break out.

As the fires were raging, press reports surfaced about such topics as the differences in preparedness among county and other local fire departments in Southern California, and federal refusal of aid that California’s governor had requested to clear highly flammable trees killed by bark beetles. But the press also reported some successes, including a recently built subdivision that used the latest fire resistant techniques to survive the wildfires with little damage. The Panel’s 2003 reports address these issues.

The report, Utilizing Local Firefighting Forces, urges all states and fire-prone communities in wildfire danger areas to qualify their local fire departments and leadership teams to take part effectively in wildfire incidents. During the big Southern California wildfires of 2003, numerous separate fires broke out on federal, state, and locally protected lands. Local forces responded actively to fires within their jurisdiction as well as on state and federal lands, and conducted mutual-aid efforts to support other local, state, and federal jurisdictions. California has one of the most fully integrated incident command systems in the nation, and most local firefighters there routinely participate seamlessly in it.

The report, Enhancing Hazard Mitigation Capacity, urges the creation and effective staffing of wildfire partnerships to collaboratively mobilize all the many parties that must work together more urgently to successfully reduce wildfire hazards on a large scale. California’s network of Fire Safe Councils is working toward this goal, but is much newer and not nearly as well developed as the partnerships for fighting fires.

Both reports urge the use of best practices learned from previous wildfire disasters, and offer specific recommendations for making wildlands as well as communities less vulnerable to catastrophic losses. The Panel continues to believe, as it did last year, that better coordinated response and hazard mitigation actions will provide the best prospects for reducing suppression costs in the long run.

The key message of both reports is to get better organized to take action across the boundaries of multiple agencies, governments, and landowners. Wildfires do not respect these boundaries. Unless those responsible for reducing wildfire hazards can work together more effectively, they are not likely to make headway against this massive problem. And many parts of the nation will continue to burn hotter and sustain more damage each year that experiences significant drought.

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